Black squirrels give KSU recognition

Suzi Starheim

Check out the black squirrel photo gallery.

View a graphic about the anatomy of a squirrel.

It seems no matter where one walks on campus, it is inevitable that a black, furry rodent will be close by, eyeing a slice of pizza or a hamburger. While tons of black squirrels inhabit Kent today, these little creatures haven’t always been a recognizable part of the community.

In February 1961, Larry Woodell, superintendent of university grounds, along with Davey Tree expert Biff Staples, brought ten cages full of black squirrels back from Ontario, Canada, and released them on campus.

In early March of 1961, the men made another trip to a park in London, Ontario, to get more squirrels. By 1964, about 150 black squirrels were already occupying the area.

Lowell Orr, biological science professor emeritus and vertebrate zoologist at Kent State since 1956, said he remembers when the first black squirrels were brought to Kent. He said he now sees up to seven or eight at any given time in his backyard.

“I enjoy them,” Orr said. “I think they are delightful, excellent animals, and they give our university a little bit of notoriety.”

Orr said he is glad people have come to associate the university with the black squirrels.

“They are very, very successful, and they have spread far from Kent,” Orr said. “From the original few that were introduced, they have spread into the many cities around Kent, and I’m rather proud of that.”

Geoff Westerfield, research technician for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, said, contrary to typical thought, black and gray squirrels are the exact same animal and can even be intermixed in a single litter. The only difference is their fur pigmentation.

“Typically, where you have black squirrels, you tend to have more blacks than grays,” Westerfield said. “Black squirrels tend to be more aggressive when they interact with grays.”

Westerfield and Orr both said the main differences between the black/gray squirrels and fox squirrels are the fur coloration, size and living areas.

“Fox squirrels tend to hang out around open areas and farming areas,” Westerfield said. “(Fox squirrels) don’t tend to be in city settings or wooded areas, whereas black and grays do, and you just don’t see gray squirrels out in the middle of cornfields.”

Orr also said that, for some reason, black squirrels are far more successful in urban areas than fox squirrels are.

Westerfield also said size differences between the fox and black squirrels are noticeable, as the fox are larger than the black and gray.


Westerfield said black squirrels eat acorns, hickory and beech nuts in addition to soft foods like the helicopter plants from maple trees, berries and bark from trees.

Fox squirrels eat these plants along with corn seed and other food found in farming areas.

“Environmentally, what they eat isn’t really a problem,” Westerfield said. “Socially, it can become a problem when they come up to people on campus asking for junk food.”

Damage and removal

Westerfield said while squirrels do get into some trouble, they are not worse than any other rodent. He said most damage tends to be chewed wires, holes in walls, stripping bark off trees and in some cases, causing arcs in transmission lines, which leads to power outages or transformers blowing up.

“A squirrel is a squirrel; they just get into areas where they shouldn’t be,” Westerfield said. “Overall, those are pretty minimal as far as wildlife nuisance problems.”

Westerfield said the easiest way to get rid of a pesky squirrel is with live traps and relocation outside the city with permission from the landowner of where the animal is being released.

“Legally, you could trap a squirrel and relocate it just outside the city lines,” Westerfield said. “If you want to effectively relocate it though, you have to go a little further.”

Westerfield said home damage is the biggest cost from black squirrels.

Contact news correspondent Suzi Starheim at [email protected].